Just back from a tremendous week in the Caribbean. By way of a Poetry Post, here’s a review of a new book on T. S. Eliot that seems relevant and interesting. The idea of “the buried life” seems central to Eliot–perhaps, in some ways, to all of us in the Hollow Men. –Shotts
Books of The Times
A Devoted Tour Guide to a Desert of a Soul
By MICHIKO KAKUTANI
Published: January 16, 2007
T. S. ELIOT
By Craig Raine
202 pages. Oxford University Press. $21.
In a culture that now seems long ago and far, far away, T. S. Eliot was a rock star. The poet made the cover of Time magazine in 1950, and several years later, 14,000 people turned out in Minneapolis to listen to him talk about â€œThe Frontiers of Criticism.â€ Modernism was the ruling aesthetic inside and outside academe, Eliot was one of its high priests, and his most famous poem, â€œThe Waste Land,â€ was hailed not only for its groundbreaking technique and glittering shards of language, but also for its difficulty â€” its density, its allusiveness, its recondite knowledge.
In his new book, â€œT. S. Eliot,â€ the British poet Craig Raine gives us a new, more accessible Eliot, an Eliot he describes as a virtuosic fox in terms of style, and a single-minded hedgehog when it came to themes. The one great animating idea of Eliotâ€™s poetry, Mr. Raine persuasively argues in these pages, is the theme of the â€œBuried Life, the idea of a life not fully lived,â€ a life of missed opportunities, repressed passions, forsaken loves â€” the same theme, of course, that lies at the core of so much of Henry Jamesâ€™s work, from â€œThe Beast in the Jungleâ€ to â€œWashington Square.â€
Eliot himself presented a buttoned-up bankerâ€™s mien to the world â€” Harold Nicolson described him as â€œa sacerdotal lawyer â€” dyspeptic, ascetic, eclectic,â€ while Virginia Woolf likened him to â€œa chapped office boy on a high stool, with a cold in his headâ€ â€” and the theme of cautionâ€™s costs seems to have been deeply embedded in his own life, framed by a repressive family upbringing and a long, unhappy marriage to the unstable Vivien Haigh-Wood.
Unlike many academic critics who have expended huge amounts of energy on uncovering Eliotâ€™s sources, pointing to obscure allusions that might unlock hidden meanings in the verse, Mr. Raine zeros in on the emotional core of the poems, using his own familiarity with Eliotâ€™s work to give the lay reader a visceral understanding of how the poet came to articulate his ideas and how those ideas evolved over the years.
As a poet himself, Mr. Raine has a practitionerâ€™s understanding of language and rhythm and sound, and he uses this knowledge to convey the beauty and power of Eliotâ€™s verse, and the myriad, subtle ways it works its magic on the reader. He points out how the use of the pedantic word â€œtherefromâ€ in â€œGerontionâ€ (â€œI that was near your heart was removed therefrom …â€) functions as a â€œtiny cough in ink,â€ underscoring the narratorâ€™s self-conscious, wallflower personality. And he points out the sexual urgency contained in the â€œtwo adjacent, cunningly unpunctuated, present participlesâ€ in these lines from â€œThe Waste Landâ€: â€œthe human engine waits/ Like a taxi throbbing waiting.â€
Locating thematic links between masterworks like â€œThe Waste Landâ€ and lesser-known works like â€œAnimula,â€ Mr. Raine does a dexterous job of showing how Eliot developed the idea of â€œthe buried life.â€ The two most famous poems to address this theme directly are â€œThe Hollow Men,â€ which depicts those gutless, empty souls who, as Mr. Raine puts it, have been rejected by both â€œheaven and hell because they have neither sinned nor been actively virtuous,â€ and â€œThe Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,â€ which depicts a sensitive but timid man who has failed to seize the day, who, in Mr. Raineâ€™s words, has resolved â€œto remain repressed,â€ to avoid â€œthe element of risk that is part of truly living.â€
â€œAnimula,â€ Mr. Raine goes on, similarly depicts â€œa psychically damaged, confined soul corroded by its own caution,â€ while â€œGerontionâ€ is narrated by â€œa voluptuary of inaction with an extensive collection of alibisâ€ for his circumscribed life.
As for â€œThe Waste Land,â€ the title is itself a reference to the desert â€” a symbol of aridity, emptiness, the failure of feeling, as these lines from Eliotâ€™s 1934 play â€œThe Rockâ€ make clear:
The desert is not remote in southern tropics,
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
In â€œAsh-Wednesdayâ€ (which was completed a few years after Eliot was received into the Church of England and which is commonly read as a poem about religious faith), Eliot revisited the idea of the failure to live, but looked at it, Mr. Raine says, â€œthrough the other end of the telescope, not as a failure,â€ but as a choice â€” â€œthe ascetic renunciation which chooses to turn its back on pleasure, on the temporal, on sensuous emotion, on the self itself, the better to embrace eternal verities.â€
Incisive as Mr. Raineâ€™s readings of these poems are, he unfortunately appends to the main narrative of this book an embarrassing, ill-judged essay (seemingly based on earlier pieces he wrote for British newspapers in the â€™90s) that attempts to defend Eliot against charges of anti-Semitism. These charges have already been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, not only by books like Anthony Juliusâ€™s 1996 study â€œT. S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form,â€ but also by any common-sense reading of damning passages in â€œGerontion,â€ â€œBurbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein With a Cigarâ€ and the 1933 lecture in which Eliot wrote that â€œreasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirableâ€ and â€œa spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.â€
Mr. Raine ties himself into knots in an effort to rationalize these passages, then asserts that â€œwe do not have all the evidenceâ€ to reach a conclusion about Eliotâ€™s anti-Semitism. In this final chapter Mr. Raineâ€™s admiration for Eliot â€” which helped him write so eloquently about the poetâ€™s work in the bookâ€™s earlier chapters â€” leads him into a state of numbed denial, afflicting him with an inability to recognize the plain fact that a great artist, one of the 20th centuryâ€™s pre-eminent poets and arguably its premier modernist, was also a terrible bigot.
Correction: January 18, 2007
The Books of The Times review on Tuesday, about â€œT. S. Eliot,â€ by Craig Raine, included an erroneous reference in the book to the site where 14,000 people turned out in Minnesota to hear Eliot speak in 1956. It was Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, not a baseball stadium in that city.